Over the past three or four seasons, baseball fans have seen a true paradigm shift in the way baseball is played, especially in the playoffs. Gone are the days of Greg Maddux or Roy Halladay pitching complete games, and teams are increasingly turning to highly specialized, highly competent relief corps to pitch from the sixth inning on. This trend goes to the extreme in postseason play, as “super-bullpens” on teams like the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland have been enough to carry teams on deep playoff runs.
The Yankees have made their own attempt at building this kind of bullpen, with midseason acquisitions and free agent signings, as well as internal development of stud relievers. All told, the team boasts the deepest bullpen in the American League, and one that might be the edge the Yankees need to separate from the rest of the cluttered AL Wild Card race. If the Yankees make the playoffs, they’d certainly be an intimidating foe based on the depth of bullpen arms as well.
How exactly does the Yankee bullpen stack up to the rest of the playoff hopefuls, though? Baseball is a copycat sport and so it would stand to reason that all teams are trying to create super-bullpens; do the Yankees simply have the super-est? To best answer that, I looked at a couple of metrics that I think best explain the talent, and more importantly, the predictability of future performance, for all the AL playoff possibles.
It’s no secret that the AL playoff picture is a bit of a mess right now. Houston, Cleveland and Boston lead their divisions, and are all pretty well assured of a playoff spot. After them, there are EIGHT teams within four games of a wild card berth, with the Yankees currently atop the pack. Only the White Sox, Athletics, Blue Jays and Tigers are essentially out of contention. This pack of 11 teams therefore will fit our set of “playoff hopefuls” when comparing relative strength of bullpens.
The first way to evaluate relief pitching is through the strikeout. Although they’re on the rise across baseball, a strikeout is still the best kind of out, as it removes so many variables and elements of chance. Aside from a dropped third strike, there’s no way an error or mis-positioned defender can allow a man to reach base, like fly balls or grounders can result in. The value of having multiple pitchers that can come in with the potential to strike out the side has been proven time and again on the 2017 Yankees, most recently Tuesday as Chad Green recorded seven of his eight outs by punchout.
As strikeouts have gone up in baseball, the bar for “elite” strikeout stuff has also risen, A good benchmark for relievers is the 11 K/9 level. There are 29 AL pitchers at that mark or above, and the distribution among AL teams is below:
You can see the Yankees are full to the brim with strike-throwers. Four of the top seven in the AL are Yankees, and even the disappointingly-average Aroldis Chapman and Chasen Shreve can be counted on to miss a boatload of bats, with 12.21 and 11.23 K/9 respectively. Yes, Chasen Shreve really is striking out more than 11 men per nine.
A second useful exercise when looking at a group of pitchers is analyzing the difference between ERA and FIP. We know that ERA can be a little misleading at times, especially when used as a snapshot of a specific date and time. FIP, however, can be used to better predict a pitcher’s ERA in the future, and the delta between a pitcher’s ERA and FIP is therefore useful to see how volatile future performance will likely be. A wide gap between the two metrics means a likely change in future performance, whereas a narrow gap indicates less change in the future. Generally, I think teams prefer consistency more than anything else, especially in a playoff race, and so will value the lowest possible ERA/FIP difference the most.
The Yankees are playing closest to their true talent level of all the AL playoff possibles, meaning we can expect roughly the same level of performance through the final month of the season. With the team in such a precarious position, I don’t expect you’ll see much high-leverage usage of the September 1st callups. Dellin Betances, David Robertson and company will likely continue to see the most important spots until the team either locks up a playoff spot or is eliminated.
Every AL team has its warts. The Astros’ rotation has faltered, the Red Sox have struggled offensively, and Cleveland ha been hammered with injuries to their pitchers. The Yankees are not above serious flaws, but as we enter the homestretch of the season, the dominance and more importantly the reliability of their bullpen might be all they need to pull away from a packed playoff race.